Decades after the shallow celebrities of an era have disappeared into obscurity, when it is possible to measure the accomplishments and contributions of others who worked without the compulsion to call attention to their efforts, less well-known people who were more truly representative of the best qualities of an age may emerge into public consciousness. In accordance with the decorous nature of their lives, this appearance is often the consequence of efforts by their friends or students—people who were influenced and inspired by them, and who believe that their achievements may never be properly appreciated, nor the value of their work fully realized, without some active public intervention on their behalf. It is this desire to celebrate the life of Rolfe Humphries, and to call attention to his best writing, that is the motivation behind this selection of Humphries’ letters, gathered from more than fifteen hundred available. The primary argument for their publication that the editors, Richard Gillman (a friend and former student) and Michael Novak (a former student, now himself a teacher), have made is that Humphries’ correspondence with some of the more interesting and important figures in American literary and cultural affairs illuminates, from a relatively new perspective, an essential element of “America’s literary community.” This historically oriented claim is certainly valid, but as Gillman’s introduction indicates, it is Humphries’ qualities of character combined with artistic insight that have touched his friends and that may be his most significant contribution to the culture of his time.
Humphries grew up in a family of modest means in which both of his parents, honors graduates from Cornell, taught literature and classical languages at various secondary schools in the Northeast and in California. Humphries was taught by his parents at home until he was ten years old. The expectations and assumptions that his family held were both a source of fundamental strength for Humphries and a kind of constraint that may have limited his ability to appreciate literature that did not meet certain requirements concerning form, structure, and appropriate versions of language for literary expression. On one hand, Humphries developed a superb grasp of Latin, and this, combined with a clear sense of how to write direct and forceful English verse, enabled him to craft accurate, captivating translations of Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. On the other hand, although he thought of himself as a lyric poet beyond any other calling, his grounding in a fundamentally classical background prohibited him from even imagining a valid avant-garde or a relevant counterculture; consequently, his own poetry, in spite of its appeal resulting from Humphries’ honesty and passion, remains locked in the enclosure of conventional style.
As his letters demonstrate, Humphries was a perceptive critic, a thorough scholar, a principled political activist, a loyal and supportive friend, and an extraordinary teacher. He wrote reviews forThe New Republic and The Nation that are incisive and trenchant, and which have not become dated even if their subjects are no longer fashionable. He wrote these essays with an authority that stems from his deep knowledge of traditional metrics and from his excellent education in the literature of the Western world. Even though he was comfortable with heroic dimensions of the classical world, his own political stance was quite progressive and his sympathies were always with underdogs, civil libertarians, and working people. His fine translations of Lorca stemmed from his wish to assist the Spanish Loyalist government in its struggle against fascism, but he never became a zealot. After a brief idealistic attachment to the Communist Party, he became an astute observer of all political power structures and was able to maintain close friendships with antipolitical poets as well as extremely reactionary ones. Behind his moderate success in various areas a tone of vague regret or muted disappointment is mingled with his energy and enthusiasm in many letters. As he put it, “I am…a lyric poet pure and simple, not a novelist, and a pedagogue only by profession.” In addition to his trenchant observations about literature and various well-known writers and his exuberant comments about his nonliterary activities, particularly horse racing, his difficulties in getting his poetry into print, his disappointment with...
(The entire section is 1833 words.)